Tigerman

tigermanTigerman, the third book I’ve read by Nick Harkaway (after The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker), sneaks up on you a bit. The dynamite opening sentence (“On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican,”) may lead you to believe that this will be a book about small things, small relationships and people, the small island of Mancreu, and watching the events of this small world unfold. But in fact, Tigerman demonstrates the way the largest of human acts — postcolonialism, environmental ravages, the global drug trade, political corruption of every stripe — are (not just linked to, but are) those small human things. This is a book at large, and at small.

Mancreu is a tiny island in the Arabian Sea which has been environmentally destroyed by its colonizers. Chemical waste pumped into its underground caverns met magma rising from an earthquake, and new, terrible, unpredictable substances were born, substances that changed every moment and that were discharged in clouds over the island, damaging every living thing. The world’s decision, and that of the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu (NatProMan — right, I know), is that Mancreu has to be destroyed, burned to the waterline and below, so that these clouds of toxins won’t float to other islands and atolls and spread the devilry someone else brought to the island in the first place. In the meantime, there are a few islanders left, waiting for the end; there is a team of Japanese xenobiologists; there is NatProMan, with its Russians and Americans; there is The Fleet, a flotilla of boats off the shore of Mancreu doing dark, corrupt, invisible deeds in neutral waters; and there is Lester Ferris, representing the British government that used to be in charge of Mancreu.

Lester is a middle-aged sergeant whose time in combat — most recently in Afghanistan — has brought him to this “soft” position on Mancreu, where all he has to do is watch the place until it dies. He doesn’t expect to form any friendships, and especially not with a twelve-year-old boy who talks in mad pop culture references, but being a sergeant predisposes him to it:

Rank made you a little bit stranger, but also gave you new roles to fill: uncle, nursemaid, gaffer, big brother, pastor, best mate and headmaster — that was a sergeant. One thing you never were was short of conversation.

Part of Lester’s job is just this sort of conversation, wandering around the island and generating trust at a time when everything is falling apart. In this way, he gathers information — and we get a sense of Lester himself, as well.

It was just that when someone here decided to Leave, they invited someone who was staying a little longer and whose home was not as nice to come and live in their house. Someone old, of course, because the young people might ruin it.

“But that will happen anyway, in the end,” the Sergeant observed.

“That’s no reason to invite it,” the dealer said. “Young people,” and this clearly included the Sergeant himself, “young people never understand. The last days are no less important than the others just because they are near to the end.” He nodded at his friends. “Should we stop living today just because death is no longer a stranger? Should we go naked because our clothes no longer fit as well as they did?”

“I should say not!” said the woman with the broom. “No one wants to see your horrible bottom!”

At first, it looks as if Lester and the boy will live out the rest of Mancreu’s life in relative peace, and the biggest question will be whether Lester can navigate his delicate relationship with the boy: he wants to give him a home after Mancreu’s inevitable destruction, but what if the boy already has parents? He doesn’t want to bruise the boy’s dignity or question his self-sufficiency while he holds the power in the relationship. Lester’s careful management of their friendship — he doesn’t quite dare say love — is a microcosm of the consequences of the damage done to Mancreu, and just that might have been enough for an excellent novel.

But an unexpected murder launches this relationship into high gear, and Lester begins to live up to the boy’s expectations for him. The island, too, seems to choose him, when he goes into the cemetery to grieve his friend:

He turned around into a completely alien intelligence, a huge soup-plate face with wide, reflective eyes. They were not yellow or green but a scalding platinum. He smelled meat and musk, tasted it in the air.

The tiger blinked. It was enormous.

Lester — reluctantly, and then seriously, even grimly — takes on the role of a superhero (I told you about the boy’s pop culture references) and becomes Tigerman, the spirit of heroic vengeance and justice that the boy, and perhaps Mancreu, have needed. The boy is everywhere on the island, Lester’s eyes and ears, and they become partners in the Tigerman endeavor. As Lester learns more, his care and concern for the boy grow, and he reaches out at the apocalyptic end of a small place to protect a small person, and to become the person he himself was meant to be.

Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the large roles of superhero and supervillain, like the large concerns of the Fleet and of postcolonialism and of environmental destruction, are made up of the same small concerns of human beings, day by day, step by small cunning step. Nick Harkaway tells us, in the end, about fathers and sons. He tells us about what we are willing to do for those we love. He tells us that sometimes even when we are willing to sacrifice everything for our loved ones, it doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, no matter how hard we try. Yet relationships — one-on-one, knowing the names of each person — are the only possible way out of a mess like the one on Mancreu, no matter how vulnerable that makes us, no matter how great the possibility that we may fail.

This book, like Harkaway’s others, is fast-paced, very funny, ferociously intelligent, and packed full of references that I often didn’t catch because I didn’t want to wait long enough to let it simmer. There’s a two-page-long treatise on British humor that I wish I could quote here, because it made me laugh so much, and made me hum with resonance. Harkaway’s books are so cleverly written that I finish them and want to begin them again; he lays clues that don’t look like clues until you’re done, and then you realize how much you could have seen if only you’d known. He is scrupulously fair with the reader, but there’s so much going on in his novels that it all streams by in a torrent. Tigerman is more tightly-plotted than his first two books, which has its pros and cons; there aren’t ninjas and pirates and killer bees as digressions, but everything that looks like a digression is actually a hammerstroke for the final resolution. This is a brilliant, beautiful book, large and small and funny and serious. I recommend everything I’ve ever read by Harkaway, and this, this, this.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 6 Comments

Uprooted

uprootedEvery ten years, the Dragon comes to the village of Dvernik and selects a 17-year-old girl to take back to his tower. Despite the rumors outside the village, he doesn’t eat them—he’s actually a wizard named Sarkan. And this wizard doesn’t lay a hand on the girls he takes. But ten years after being taken, each girl returns changed, unwilling to marry or to stay in the village.

Agnieszka, the narrator of this novel by Naomi Novik, will turn 17 during a Dragon year, but she’s not concerned about being taken herself. She, like everyone in Dvernik, knows that her beautiful best friend Kasia will be the Dragon’s choice. Of course, as someone who had read a book before, I wasn’t surprised when the choice was different and Agnieszka ended up in the Dragon’s tower.

Agnieszka was chosen not for her beauty or wit but because the Dragon saw that she had magical gifts and those with a gift must be trained. After a bumpy start, when the Dragon treats Agnieszka with disdain no matter what she does, Agnieszka begins to find her power—and a powerful partnership with Sarkan. As Agnieszka learns to use her power to protect those she loves, she confronts an evil with the power to corrupt not just her village, but the entire universe.

This fantasy, which draws on the Baba Yaga legend, has a lot to recommend it. I was especially drawn in by the descriptions of the magic itself, which is depicted as something like music, requiring both intense study and natural talent. Each witch and wizard has a particular style. Sarkan’s magic is precise, following the formulas carefully. Agnieszka’s is more improvisational, as she lets the words show her what to do. Making magic together requires the two voices to find a way to blend while retaining their particular unique qualities because no one style of magic is superior. What seems to be important is that each person find his or her own style.

The world Novik has created is just as rich as the system of magic. It doesn’t take long for the story to expand beyond the village and the tower. Personally, I found the story rather larger in scope than I would have liked, and I struggled a bit to maintain my interest when Agnieszka ended up at the royal court. I could appreciate what Novik what doing, but I think when it comes to fantasy, I love the stories that are about learning the rules and harnessing the magic properly. Fantasy politics, even skilfully depicted, are often tedious to me.

But to give Novik credit, even when it comes to my specific preferences, she centers the story squarely on Agnieszka and her desire to protect those she loves. The politics come into play only when they mean her people could be hurt. As the story goes on, her areas of concern expand to include more than her family and friends, but her fears and doubts remain the core of the narrative. And this brings up another thing that I appreciated about the book. Agnieszka is supremely talented, but she makes mistakes, some of which are quite serious. Yet her actions, perhaps especially her mistakes, are what lead to a needed disruption of the status quo. Being young in her power, she needs to learn a lot, but her youth also brings fresh eyes and a different set of priorities.

Novik is best known for her Temeraire books, a fantasy series I’ve seen described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons. Perhaps I’ll check those out after I finish O’Brian’s books. If you’ve read them, what did you think?

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments

Lila

lilaI read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila way back in January, and have been letting my thoughts about it simmer. It is without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and it touched me very deeply. How do I talk about a novel like this without using clichés? It’s like falling in love: the poets have said everything there is to say about light and longing and happiness and terror, and left me with banalities. But I’ll try.

When Teresa wrote her review of this book, she pointed out the way that Lila is terrified by the idea of accepting love. She has had a hard, rough-scrabble life, mostly among people who didn’t care about her one way or the other, and she has had to raise her defenses, both physical and psychological. Her only source and object of love, all her life, was a woman named Doll who is now gone out of her life. Lila is alone, and she sees a lot of reasons to stay that way. Yet she is drawn toward love: toward a small church, toward John Ames, toward the child she carries. She doesn’t want to be beholden or vulnerable, yet she wants to love and be loved. The tension is powerful and utterly human.

One way Robinson shows this tension — the push and pull between safety and vulnerability, between solitude and community — is with language. Since Lila grew up so isolated, roaming along back roads with Doll and a small group of other drifters, stopping to go to school only for a single year, she misses many of the meta-concepts many of us take for granted, and use to communicate ideas to each other.

Once, when she was new at the school in Tammany, the teacher asked her what country they lived in. The corn was tall, the sun was hot, the river was high for that time of year, so she said, “Looks to me like pretty decent country.” That is what Doane would have said about it. And the children laughed, and some of the leaned out of their desks to wave their arms, and they whispered the answer loud enough that the teacher would hear even if she didn’t call on them. “The United States of America!”

Of course. Walking along in pretty decent country, why know the names of things? Why stand up above it enough to discuss it? It’s enough to have plenty to eat and a place to sleep and some work to do. What, for instance, is this “existence” that John Ames is always talking about with his friend Boughton? “She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.” It is the same, for Lila, with “baptism” or “love,” “redemption” or “seemliness.” When she discovers that feelings or actions she’s had all her life have names, or even rituals attached to them, her heart lifts: she is not alone in the world after all; not a stranger to everyone on earth. If things have names, it means other people have felt the same way she does, and had some of the same experiences. But even the joy of this necessary, essential connection can’t take away the hardness of the world, or the sorrow of it. At first Lila loves the idea of resurrection because it means she might see Doll again, alive forever.

But Boughton mentioned a Last Judgment. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her, no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven. But that wasn’t possible. The old man always said that God is kind. Doll was so tough and weary, with that stain on her face, and the patient way she had when anyone looked at her — I never see it, but I know what you see. Whatever it was she did with that knife, who could want to cause her more sorrow?

Instead of that Last Judgment, Lila considers the facts of her existence, and slowly crafts her own theology of love and redemption — one in which God is like Doll, looking for us everywhere, finding us at last. It is a bridge that consists of words as well as tenderness.

Robinson presents some of the deepest issues of human life — forgiveness, connection, death, love, redemption, vulnerability — from the point of view of someone whose life has never given her time, space, words, or metaphors to think about any of these things before she arrived in a small town in Iowa. Lila says, “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth,” and that is what this book is like: the wildness and strangeness of the human heart, touching earth like a tornado, stripping connections down to their essentials, offering sorrow and wisdom and understanding for suffering as well as love. This is a demanding book, beautiful and clear, measured and thoughtful. Like Teresa, I believe Robinson is one of the best American writers living today. This novel offers compassion and peace with a sense of amazement that there can be such things in a world like this. You can see, perhaps, why I love it.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

The Round House

Round HouseThis novel by Louise Erdrich has a little bit of just about everything I love in fiction. There are kids on the cusp of being adults, geeking out over Star Trek: TNG in the same summer that they’re touched by the kind of real tragedy and horror that is all too common in this galaxy at this time. There’s a mystery and a smattering of amateur sleuthing (by those very same boys). There’s a community full of individuals, richly and carefully drawn, all with lives that stretch beyond the pages of the book. There are hints of mysticism that feel real, not just magical flourishes. There’s an honest but satisfying ending, where pain lingers but time passes. And there’s Erdrich’s always reliably comfortable prose. I haven’t loved all her books as much as I loved this one, but I always know I’m in good hands when I pick up one of her book.

The story of The Round House begins with the rape and attempted murder of Geraldine Coutts, mother of Joe, the novel’s 13-year-old narrator. Joe spends the summer watching his mother and father deal with the aftereffects of the crime and trying to find a way to recover the happy family he once new. And so he enlists his friends to investigate the crime and bring justice to the rapist.

This story could have gone wrong in so many ways, but Erdrich handles it with incredible sensitivity—and not without humor. The premise sounds rather a lot like the all-too-common trope of the hero taking revenge on the man who hurt his woman—and certainly Joe’s quest is influenced by those kinds of stories. But the heart of the story is really about learning to feel for others and with others, to let them feel what they feel in their own way.

I’ve read lots of stories about crime victims and plenty about survivors of murder victims, but stories of people who are close to trauma, but not the direct victims are more unusual. All such stories I can thing of are of the revenge drama type (and those often involve a dead or missing victim). It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—how other people’s trauma affects those close to them. There’s a remarkable scene in this book when Joe goes to the Round House that was the scene of the crime and experiences what seems like a flashback, as he imagines the crime in vivid detail and begins to shake uncontrollably. His mother’s pain, while uniquely her own, is also his pain. This is natural and normal, and I appreciated Erdrich’s handling of Joe’s particular pain in the face of his mother’s trauma.

Much of the book deals, I think, in the way all people are individuals in a community. My pain is your pain; your pain is mine. Yet my pain is also my own, properly known only to me; just as your pain is your own, known only to you. The same is true of passion and pleasure and dreams. We are touched by the feelings of everyone around us, and those feelings become wrapped up in our own feelings. We are ourselves, and we are part of those around us. Our stories are our own yet part of others’ stories. Erdrich explores that tension with insight in this moving novel, my favorite of the four I’ve read so far.

Posted in Fiction | 7 Comments

The Cruelest Month

cruelest monthThe Cruelest Month is the third I’ve read of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, set in the small village of Three Pines near Montreal. In this book, set on Easter weekend, a psychic happens to be visiting the village on her spring vacation. In something of a busman’s holiday maneuver, Gabri, the owner of the bed-and-breakfast, convinces the psychic to hold a séance. “Just for fun,” he wheedles (any little show livens things up for business, doesn’t it?) But the séance becomes far more serious than anyone had guessed or planned when the dead are invited into the circle, but one living guest never leaves it.

This book was slightly more complicated than the other two I’ve read. In the previous two, there have been hints about why certain factions in the Sûreté of Québec are against Chief Inspector Gamache — why he will never advance further in the force, and why he, his family, and his team are now in real danger. In this book, those hints are much more fully fleshed out, and we get some substantial answers and relationship-building in Gamache’s team — including a possible traitor.

The other plot line, of course, is the murder of Madeleine Favreau. Once again, Louise Penny doesn’t disappoint. Having the murders all take place in one tiny village is absurd in one sense, of course — how many creative murders can one tiny québecois village sustain, year in and year out, anyway? — but it suits a novelist’s purpose perfectly. We see characters and relationships grow and develop, whether for good or for ill. Even eccentric characters like the poet Ruth Zardo are not caricatures. The only thing Penny risks by having her regular characters become so interesting is having her reader lose interest in the actual murder itself. I’ll admit that in this book, it was down third or fourth on my list of things to pay attention to!

If you haven’t tried the Gamache series, I’d really recommend picking up the first of these, Still Life. They are interesting, compassionate, thoughtful mysteries that have held my attention. See what you think.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 15 Comments

In Persuasion Nation

in persuasion nationI wrote about George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December about a year and a half ago. It surprises me to find that it was so long ago, because those stories have remained vivid in my mind as some of the best reading I’ve done in the past few years. They are sharp, vivid, weird little parables, that are as playful as river-pebbles when it comes to form and language, and as powerful as the river itself when it comes to darkness, sorrow, humanity, and compassion. Reading them, you are deep over your head before you know exactly where you are.

As in Tenth of December, the stories of In Persuasion Nation are dark, ironic, funny, satirical, sometimes grotesque. Some of them are in a contemporary, realistic setting; others are set in an all-too-recognizable near future, in which advertising executives are kings and there’s a pharmaceutical for every ill. In either case, Saunders writes about dark pockets of human behavior, the violent, the weird and outre, the shameful and rock-bottom. And he also writes about the gleams of hope and humanity he finds all the way down there, because both sides are real: don’t look away, he says, this is what people are actually like.

I think this sense of the reality of human nature that undergirds the stories is what makes them feel so familiar, despite the often vertiginous unfamiliarity of the setting. In the first story, “I CAN SPEAK! (TM)”, a salesman writes a letter to a woman who is asking for a refund on a very peculiar purchase. The I CAN SPEAK! (TM) is a mask you can strap over your infant’s face, and it will respond to what you’re saying and make it seem as if your baby is talking like an adult. And there’s more!

With the ICS2100, your baby looks just like your baby. And because we do not want anyone to be unhappy with us, we would like to make you the gift of a complimentary ICS2100 upgrade! We would like to come to your house on Lester Way and make a personalized plaster cast of Derek’s real, actual face! And soon, via FedEx, here will come Derek’s face in a box, and when you skip that ICS2100 over Derek’s head and Velcro the Velcro, he will look nearly exactly like himself, plus we have another free surprise, which is that, while at your house, we will tape his actual voice and use it to make our phrases, the phrases Derek will subsequently say. So not only will he look like himself, he will sound like himself, as he crawls around your house, appearing to speak!

Plus we will throw in several personalizing options.

Over the course of the letter, it becomes clear that the salesman is bewildered and unhappy about his own grotesque product, but “We at KidLuv really love what kids are, Mrs. Faniglia, which is why we want them to become something better as soon as possible.”

Some stories are truly menacing. If someone wanted to rewrite Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” without using any of the original elements of the story, and they were a genius, they might come up with something like “The Red Bow” (read it here), in which a family grieving a loss manages to poison a community.  In “Commcomm,” a man’s murdered parents haunt his house, and this is the least of his worries as the story turns angry and dark. Others are lighter-hearted: “My Amendment,” one of the funniest stories, ponders the true meaning of same-sex marriage:

Because then what will we have? A nation ruled by the anarchy of unconstrained desire. A nation of willful human hearts, each lurching this way and that, reaching out for whatever it spontaneously desires, totally unconcerned about the external form in which that desired thing is embodied.

That is not the kind of world in which I wish to live.

I, for one, intend to become ever more firmly male, enjoying my golden years, while watching “P” become ever more female, each of us watching for any hint of ambiguity in the other.

Saunders is very interested in consumer culture and class. He knows about advertising and money, and the vicious, tail-biting circles they produce; how little joy and how much greed, hatred and confusion. But he is also interested in the human beings who create and live in this culture. And human beings, no matter how misled, violent, trapped, or oppressed, are capable of insight and redemption, if only — sometimes — by accident. As the narrator puts it at the end of “Commcomm”:

That is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.

Saunders is not willing to let the dark be only dark. His stories are satirical — original, strange, wonderful — but the best satire moves for change, and Saunders knows the direction we can head by where he sees the light.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 1 Comment

Piège pour Cendrillon (Trap for Cinderella)

trap for cinderellaSébastien Japrisot is the name under which Jean-Baptiste Rossi wrote his marvelous, twisty, cunning crime novels. (It is interesting to see that his biographers and critics often write about his early novels as “literature,” as opposed to his crime novels. I wouldn’t draw that particular opposition, myself.) In my French Crime Fiction class, I asked my students to read his second crime novel, the one for which he won the Grand Prix de littérature policière in 1963: Piège pour Cendrillon (Trap for Cinderella.)

Trap for Cinderella begins with an odd little prologue. Once upon a time, it says, there were three little girls: Mi, Do, and La, and their godmother, Midola. Mi was the prettiest, Do was the smartest, and La soon died. With this chilling beginning — and the clear implication as it goes on that the godmother strongly prefers Mi to the other two girls — the reader is already questioning the story. Are we in fairyland or reality? Who is Cinderella, the princess or the girl sent to sit in the ashes? Who is setting the trap?

The novel (which rids itself of the fairy-tale prose but not necessarily its structural or symbolic importance) revolves around two girls who were trapped in a fire at a beach resort in France. One died in the fire, burned beyond recognition. The other, our narrator, has lost her memory in the wake of the accident. She has burns on her face and hands that make it impossible to tell her identity (no DNA evidence available in the 1960s). But one girl was rich, an heiress, and one girl was penniless. Which girl is she? Wealthy Michèle (the Mi of the fairy tale) or poor bank-teller Domenica (Do)? Who can she trust to tell her? Where is the trap, and who set it? Is it, in fact, a trap she might have set herself, before the accident? What evidence is real, and in the case of someone with no identity, what does “real” mean?

Japrisot has done some very clever things with this book. One is the fact that all the characters who are usually in a crime novel — victim, detective, murderer, witness — are, or may be, the same person here: the girl herself. As she reconstructs the crime, she is reconstructing her own past, implying that identity — and justice itself, therefore — are merely ideas, constructions in our minds, reflections of what others say about us. Another clever thing about this is how deeply we identify with her search. We, the reader, want to solve the crime, as we do with any mystery; the girl wants to find her identity. In this book, both quests are the same. We’ve both fallen into the Cinderella trap, which, as it turns out, is a narrative one.

I could go on for a long time talking about how interesting and well-done this book is, and how it draws you in with its ambiguity. Clues in this book lead only to more twists and turns, and just when you think you know something, you’ll just walk around another bend. Japrisot is well worth discovering.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 8 Comments

The Darkest Jungle

darkest jungleIn Todd Balf’s book The Darkest Jungle, he explains that by 1854, after the spectacular and expensive failure of the Franklin expedition, the search for the Northwest Passage was sliding off the front pages. The new great hope was Panama. Could it be that in that slender isthmus, a way could be found for shipping to come across, and eliminate the losses of life and cargo that occurred every year in rounding Cape Horn?

But Panama was all but unknown. It was unmapped, full of wary indigenous tribes (wary for extremely good historical reasons), a virtually impenetrable jungle in a hostile climate. Men who had been there told mutually contradictory stories: there were mountains — plateaus — beautiful rivers — horrible ravines — they said you could climb a tree and see the Atlantic and the Pacific — they said you could do no such thing.  So when American Navy lieutenant Isaac Strain led the Darien Exploring Expedition to try to discover a way to link the two oceans, it needed leadership, money, maps, equipment, food, guns, guides, and luck. Well, they had the leadership…

The expedition was a disaster of the kind that only those who like to sit in cozy armchairs and read about other people’s misfortunes could enjoy. (I count myself among that number; travel and exploration narratives are one of my favorite genres.) Strain was an excellent leader, without the loony ego that fuels most explorers’ trips to, say, get penguins’ eggs at the Pole or find ancient civilizations in the Amazon, so that particular piece of the trip was all right. But he was working on a government budget, not a privately-funded one, and he didn’t have all the equipment he should have (markedly missing: quinine and extra dry shoes.) He didn’t have native guides, or anyone who could talk to the local tribes. And perhaps worst of all, he had maps that were completely, totally, laughably wrong.

Strain and his men went into the jungle. For the next three months, they traveled. They found themselves bitten by poisonous insects and plants, infested by parasites, infected by diseases they had no antidotes to, drained by vampire bats at night. They marched themselves to exhaustion and starved in the middle of the luxurious jungle, living for weeks on nothing but palm nuts, which etched away their tooth enamel. Time after time, they thought they were near the ocean, only to find they were dozens of miles away. They made heart-wrenching decisions: left behind the sick and dying, wept, split up their party so the rest could have a chance to live. Only a few survived. The story was eclipsed, afterward, by the successful completion of the canal: built on the bones of dead men, we are reminded.

Todd Balf searched for the group’s own journals and logs, but was never able to find them. He worked second-hand, through the then-best-selling historian Joel Tyler Headley, with whom Strain and others apparently shared their writings. In this way, and through other period sources, he reconstructs a vivid account of what it could have been like in that terrible jungle. Balf does a fair amount of I-was-there biography, something I hate: he puts himself into the mind of Strain and the others, reconstructing their thoughts and emotions. That’s no way to write history (he is not a historian, he is a journalist.) The piece is a bit overwritten for that reason, with some embellishment of a story that is already so dramatic it needs no embellishment. I will also recommend to you David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, which actually takes the trouble to research and explain the jungle ecosystem, so that you know why Strain and his men found nothing to eat, and what bugs and plants they likely died of. Balf doesn’t do any of this.

However, the book tells a truly gripping story that I’d never known existed. It conjures up that dark jungle, and tells a story of misery, fraud, bad luck, leadership, and courage that rivals anything you could tell about the poles. If you, like me, enjoy sitting comfortably with no parasites at hand, and reading about adventure, this will be the sort of thing you will like.

Posted in Biography, History, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 4 Comments

Iphigenia in Forest Hills

IphigeniaWhen I began reading Janet Malcolm’s book about the murder trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, accused of hiring a man to kill her ex-husband Daniel Malakov, I don’t think I had any particular leaning regarding her guilt or innocence. The fact that she was a doctor and a respected member of the Bukharan-Jewish community in Queens didn’t hold any sway with me. The respectability argument also meant little to me when it came to the accusation that Malakov beat his wife and sexually abused his daughter during their marriage. These things happen in places where we’re told to least expect them. Seeming unlikeness is not an argument.

As I finished Iphigenia in Forest Hills, my lack of opinion about guilt and innocence hadn’t changed. I don’t think Malcolm was all that interested in the question of guilt or innocence. She’s doesn’t investigate the crime so much as she investigates the trial. What was the evidence? What were the arguments? What kinds of backstage happenings led to the verdict? She looks into not just the murder trial but also the earlier custody case that took the couple’s daughter, Michelle, away from her mother. The resulting book shows how trials are not just about getting at the truth.

There are lots of moments during the case that might worry someone who thinks court should be about revealing the truth. Many of these moments involve the way personalities came to dominate the proceedings. Being able to make a good argument and speak in a way that appeals to a jury is more important than the substance of the argument. And then there’s the judge’s desire to wrap up before his vacation, which causes him to have the defense offer closing arguments on a Friday, with limited time to prepare, while giving the prosecution a weekend.

Even more troubling is the custody case, where Michelle is taken from her mother because the court (and her advocate) belief that Borukhova has been poisoning the daughter against her father, as evidenced by the daughter’s distress at being taken from her mother during visits with her father. Borukhova’s answer, that she had been abused and witnessed abuse at her father’s hands, doesn’t seem to get serious consideration. From what Malcolm reveals, the evidence on both sides is weak, but the penalty for Borukhova’s alleged wrongdoing at that stage seems severe, given how common it is for a shy 4-year-old to be extremely attached to a particular parent.

The trial and the many ways it seemed to go wrong makes a fascinating (and frustrating) story, although I found Malcolm’s approach to it, especially in the early chapters, unnecessarily muddled. She moves around in time a lot, not depicting the events of the trial in chronological occurred, but beginning late in the defense’s case and shifting backward and forward to paint the picture she wants readers to see. I can’t help but wonder whether, in all that bouncing around, she left out key information that bolstered the prosecution’s case.

For even though Malcolm doesn’t declare a position, the nature of the book means that it appears to lean toward Borukhova’s innocence. I think it’s probably more fair to say that she’s trying to show how messy trials are and how human idiosyncrasies get in the way of the pursuit of justice.

Posted in Nonfiction | 2 Comments

The Birthday Present

Birthday PresentWhen I saw on Saturday that Ruth Rendell had died, I just happened to have The Birthday Present, which she wrote under the name Barbara Vine, out from the library. Of course, I had to pick it up right away and read it. I’m sorry to say that it’s not one of her best books, but I find that even her less successful books are enjoyable to read. She is an extraordinarily reliable author, and I’ve never been sorry to have read one of her books.

The titular birthday present is a pretend abduction that Ivor Tesham planned as a surprise for his lover Hebe Furnal. The couple enjoyed playing sexual games, and so Ivor had hired a couple of men to nab Hebe off the street and bring her to him for a night of adventures in the bedroom. But a fatal traffic accident kept Hebe from reaching him, and the police were left with what looked like a kidnapping to investigate.

Ivor, as a member of Parliament, needed to keep his plan a secret. Hebe was married, and this was the early 1990s, when the political establishment took a special interest in rooting out sleaze. So when he learned of Hebe’s death, he kept quiet, hoping that the one survivor of the accident would not emerge from his coma and wondering who else knew about his relationship with Hebe.

The story here, looking back from the present day, after the scandal became public, is told by two bystanders. The first narrator, who has pulled the whole story together, is Ivor’s brother-in-law, Rob. Ivor had borrowed Rob and his wife Iris’s house for his birthday surprise, so Rob was in on the story from the beginning. The other narrator, Jane Atherton, is Hebe’s alibi whenever she meets Ivor. Jane’s version of the story comes in the form of diary entries, which Rob tells us he has collected.

The story itself is gripping, as Rendell’s Barbara Vine books always are. There are lots of secrets to unearth and lots of questions to answer. And having the story be told by these two characters is a wonderful choice. They’re close enough to know details of what happened, but distant enough to not be immersed in those details. Plus, being this close to tragedy can have an effect on a person, but there are no scripted responses or usual patterns for coping with being adjacent to, but not directly involved with, this sort of tragedy or scandal.

Watching Rob and Jane’s disparate reactions is one of the more unsettling (and sometimes frustrating) aspects of the book. Jane, a spinster librarian at a failing library, begins to see Hebe’s death as a route to her own salvation. If she can make herself indispensable to Hebe’s husband, perhaps he’ll save her from her loneliness. Rob, married with a child and more on the way, keeps himself more distant, acting as a sounding board for Ivor but not letting himself be personally drawn in much. You can probably imagine why I found this troubling. It just played into so many annoying tropes about single women and childlessness and family as salvation and so on. I don’t want to say writers can never write stories about sad, mad spinster women. Such stories can work, and this story does. I’ve seen many sad, mad spinsters in Rendell’s fiction and not been bothered. I think what troubled me here is that she set such a woman up against a more well-heeled family man is unfortunate, making her sex and her singleness and her childlessness look like the problem. Usually, in Rendell’s books, madness is spread around all over the place.

Still, despite this annoyance (as well as my sense that the two narrative voices weren’t as distinct from each other as they could have been), I was entertained by this book. Ruth Rendell never fails to entertain me, especially when she’s writing as Barbara Vine. And thinking about how sad I am to see her go, and how reliable a writer she is, I find myself tempted to read or reread all her books (more than 60 of them!). I read so many of them in a big bunch back in the mid-90s that they’re a big blur to me. I’d like to revisit a lot of those. And then there are so many I haven’t gotten around to. (I avoid the Inspector Wexford books, for example, not because I dislike them, but because I like the others better, and setting a limit with such a prolific author is helpful.) The urge will probably pass, but reading all the tributes to her over the weekend put in the mood for more.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 12 Comments